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Rethinking Humanitarian Aid in Civil Wars

LONDON – In recent months, nongovernmental organizations and journalists have accused the United Nations of bias toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and failure to distribute humanitarian aid to rebel-controlled areas of Syria. To an extent, these criticisms are justified. The UN does work closely with the Syrian government, and humanitarian aid has not consistently reached areas outside of government control. But the detractors overlook an inherent contradiction in the UN’s responsibilities in countries facing civil war.

According to the UN Charter, one of the organization’s purposes is to coordinate relief operations during and after disasters of a “humanitarian character” in which national authorities cannot cope on their own. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has overall responsibility for the UN’s disaster-relief efforts, and its activities should be guided by the four principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. It works with national governments, specialized UN agencies, and collaborating international and local NGOs.

But the UN also has a mandate to respect its member states’ sovereignty, which means that it must acknowledge an internationally recognized regime’s authority over its territory and the people living there. This is not an issue when countries are ruled by governments that have exclusive jurisdiction over their territory and a genuine concern for their citizens’ welfare. But it becomes problematic when these conditions don’t exist, such as in civil wars.

When militant groups capture territory within a country, it gives rise to a situation that the sociologist Charles Tilly called dual or multiple sovereignty. The rebels, rather than the internationally recognized regime, become the de facto sovereigns of areas they control. This poses a challenge for the UN because of its twin mandates to deliver humanitarian aid impartially and to respect its member states’ sovereignty.